By Marie LeBlanc and Christian Clansky
Last week in Los Angeles, as the first Upswell Lab attempted to wrap up, an enthusiastic buzz echoed through the Center at Cathedral Plaza. While it was quite clear that a two-hour Lab might not be long enough (more on that shortly), it was also obvious that the 65 changemakers – each one in full brainstorm mode – were thriving off each one another’s energy.
We tried and failed, multiple times, to call the group’s attention back to the front of the room. Didn’t people want to get to lunch? Instead, above the conversation, one voice shouted from the back of the room, “We have an Upswell!”
And that was perfect, because it was the strongest signal yet that Los Angeles’ changemakers – and some who traveled from much further away – are eager to help build Upswell.
Who was there?
Sixty-five changemakers brought their ideas and energy to the LA Lab, and they show cased the incredibly diverse ways that people are working to improve their communities. To kick off the Lab, we asked each person to share what they’re working on. Here’s what they said:
- Access to and development of meaningful curricula for native students
- After school education
- Air quality and pollution
- Arts education and equity
- Childhood cancer
- Chronic conditions among adults
- Civic and social innovation
- Civic innovation
- Clean water
- Closing the skills gap
- College access
- Connecting communities to each other
- Displacement from gentrification
- Diversity, inclusion, and equity
- Early learning
- Economic mobility
- Economic mobility for young adults
- Education system reform
- Educational opportunity
- Enhancing systems thinking and collaborative practices for nonprofit leaders
- Healthcare for people with developmental disabilities
- Housing instability for low income families with children
- Impacting and equitable marketing
- Indigenous rights
- Inequality in California
- Leadership development
- Maternal mental health
- Mental health disparities
- Organizational sustainability and effectiveness
- Racial equity
- Trauma-informed youth development
- Voter registration and political activity
- Workforce stability
- Youth development and empowerment
- Youth workforce development
And, to emphasize the variety of challenges facing communities in Los Angeles, one changemaker noted (with a dry sense of humor) that he’s working on “everything.”
At the core of the Lab was the idea of proximity. The goal was to really get a clear sense of the challenges facing the people of Los Angeles, and then begin to understand how we can put changemakers from across the country in proximity to these issues.
Immersion experiences have become a key piece of the Upswell design. We learned from changemakers in Detroit last year that leveraging inspiring spaces is an important component to creating a powerful experience. And we believe that increasing proximity to the issues we care about will ground our thinking and conversations in the reality of communities’ lived experiences.
So, using a human-centered design technique called collective construction, we organized into smaller groups to generate and refine ideas for LA-based immersion experiences. The general idea is that each person suggests an idea. Then, the next person tries to break that idea (gently!) in the spirit of trying to strengthen it. The person after then has to refine and fortify it. The exercise is powerful because it leverages unique perspectives to create a well-rounded final idea.
We walked away with 44 ideas, ranging from community-based tours to interactive sessions centering community members with lived experience.
What did we learn?
One of the biggest tensions for Upswell – and really, for the social sector in general – is that changemakers have an incredibly wide spectrum of missions. Our work as a community is to figure out how we can advance every mission while organizing in a broad enough way that we can forge new connections.
At the Lab, changemakers organically, if imperfectly, gathered around these bigger categories: civil society/community development; environment; health and healthcare; homelessness and affordable housing; immigration; indigenous rights; jobs and poverty; racial equity; and youth development.
Interestingly, throughout the groups, we began to notice a few themes being repeated consistently, including that:
- Multiple sectors (nonprofit, business, and government) should be included in the conversation, particularly for issues like affordable housing and jobs/workforce development.
- Experiences should try to explore root causes for issues, not just show the symptoms.
- It’s critical to engage community members with lived experience, particularly on issues like homelessness, youth development, and immigration. Community activists and those with lived experience are powerful storytellers. However, we must be thoughtful, intentional, and authentic when working with community members.
- There are opportunities to think creatively and use tools like virtual reality, photography, and video to help Upswell attendees experience places and perspectives they wouldn’t otherwise see.
The Upswell design team is digging deep into every idea generated at the Lab. If you were someone who volunteered to continue developing your idea, you’ll be hearing from us soon! And if you weren’t we’ll keep you up dated on the blog.
We also heard two great pieces of feedback.
The first is that people want to know more about Upswell. The blog is a great place to stay informed, and we’ll be sharing news more frequently in the weeks ahead. But in the meantime, here are a few things to get you up to speed:
- Can you feel it? (aka “The Upswell Video”)
- What the heck is Upswell?
- From the first IS conference to Upswell
- What the heck is an Upswell Lab?
- And, the Upswell Blog
The second is that the Labs need to be a bit longer.
We tried to accomplish a lot in two hours. While the Lab was designed for rapid-style brainstorming, we’ll aim to be more flexible in future Labs so that we’re not putting a cap on the energy levels. We’ve also got some exciting ideas about creative ways of giving you more time to connect with other folks in the room.
The Upswell Lab / LA was just the beginning. We’ve got Labs planned across the country – and we hope you’ll join us. If you have thoughts, questions, or feedback about what happened in LA, leave a comment below and let us know!
Marie LeBlanc is a director and Christian Clansky is the director of marketing and digital strategy at Independent Sector.